Initially posted on McGrath Institute Blog, published at the U. of Notre Dame, January 24
The fine art of conversation, used as an instrument to share hope and advance the common good, has taken a beating. Many Catholics feel inhibited in their discipleship, fearing their beliefs and values aren’t welcome in discussions of crucial public issues. They don’t want to be called “haters.”
Freedom, human flourishing and our eternal destiny are at stake if our faith is set on “mute” much of the day. Polarized societies are unable to solve problems, or see solutions, when there’s no trust, no agreement on truth. Stalemated discussions risk stagnant souls. Jesus—the way, the truth and the life—taught us, “What I say to you in the darkness, speak in the light; what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops.” (Matthew 10:27)
St. Francis de Sales, a witness of charitable dialogue
The feast day of Saint Francis de Sales, on January 24, is a good day for us missionaries to recommit as advocates, not administrators. De Sales (1567-1622) is the patron saint of writers, journalists and the Catholic media. As bishop of Geneva, he became an avid writer of books, pamphlets and correspondence focused on lay people. He defended transformative truths simply and gently.
This Doctor of the Church completed work on the final edition of his spiritual classic, Introduction to the Devout Life, 400 years ago, in 1619. But notice how timely his guidance is today. De Sales asserts the everyday pursuit of devotion to our loving God is inseparable from effective outreach to minds and hearts. His Introduction includes a substantial section about virtue in discernment and discussion. Chapters 26 through 30 offer valuable remedies for this coarsened culture.
“Your language should be restrained, frank, sincere, candid, unaffected and honest,” he writes. “Be on guard against equivocation, ambiguity or dissimulation.” Elsewhere, we’re cautioned that jumping to conclusions—so common amid the media’s labels and exaggerations—can deaden devout living and, by extension, toxify debate: “Rash judgment begets uneasiness, contempt of neighbor, pride, self-satisfaction and many other extremely bad effects,” such as slander.
St. Francis de Sales, a model of the personal touch
For De Sales, respect is at the core of communication with God and people. Both connections are deeply personal and yet rooted in relationships and encounters, not pretenses or assumptions. Pope Paul VI updated this message when he said, “Contemporary man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers.”
That’s what De Sales means when he describes a devout life. It comprises experiencing God’s profound love, then responding with “ardor and readiness in performing charitable actions.” These are one-on-one actions, not merely an attitude toward mankind in general. De Sales personifies this, addressing his Introduction not to some faceless population, but to a particular person—a woman named Philothea whom he is instructing. “Throughout this entire book,” he explains in the preface, “I keep in mind a soul who out of desire for devotion aspires to the love of God.”
A uniquely Christian form of dialogue
He’s suggesting a uniquely Christian dialogue we can model for others. Speaking to individuals, about individuals, reflects an authenticity the mass media can’t duplicate. We must nurture families, parishes and communities with infusions of truth and trust; focused on others, not ourselves; recognizing real desolations and consolations. Catechists and other ministers can cultivate these qualities, perhaps by writing in visionary Catholic or secular media, not as office-holders but as correspondents pondering and conveying God’s voice in the zephyr.
First, we should let His love remove our own fear of speaking up. Francis de Sales can provide inspiration and practical wisdom. Devout communication is not distracted, disruptive or pro forma. It’s proactive. This saint, echoing Jesus, tells us to keep spreading the word to brothers and sisters, not audiences. If we regard God and His children with joy and ardor, the fine art of conversation can revitalize the fine art of conversion in ourselves and our society.